American Art Today, the collection of contemporary paintings on exhibit at the New York World's Fair, is not, from the point of view of art alone, worth seeing. However, certain phases of the exhibit are interesting insofar as they are able to show clearly the direction of a trend the importance of which is continually increasing in every field of modern culture. Seeds of social and economic maladjustment are beginning to take root on the canvases of many excellent artists.
Exemplifying this trend is Ernest Fiene, German-born American painter. His oil, Night Shift, strongly protests against the humanity-stifling power of industry and its ever-increasing tendency to draw the life-blood from the individuality of the laborers. We see a group of shabbily-dressed workers slowly trudging toward the mines and factories where they are about to assume their tiresome and cog-like duties at the machines. The artist accentuates the depressing atmosphere which pervades the lives of these men by using as a background grim, grey chimneys and buildings, in addition to a cold, solid, winter sky. It is not difficult to see that Fiene is attempting to show the gradual degeneration of a human being into a walking piece of steel.
Fiene embodies some of the controlled but outspoken realism of the elder Breughel, sixteenth century Flemish master. In Breughel's work, we see the underlying and basic connection of man with nature. His men and women are integral parts of the landscape; humanity is just as deeply rooted in the earth as a massive rock or a tree. Fiene speaks much in the same manner. His men are on a par with the countryside which they inhabit. But his is a new kind of landscape, one bristling with cranes and pulleys, a valley of machines whose wheels seem as if they might revolve for all eternity. And out of this maelstrom chimneys point upward like lank, black limbs. Breughel, in his work, brings out the essential sameness of man and his natural environment; Fiene shows that man is degenerating into an unimportant phase of a new and artificial environment.
Now whether or not the philosophy embodied in paintings such as Fiene's is of sound or infirm quality is not, to my mind, an important point. What does deserve attention, however, is the fact that the field of art is coming into its own in relation to people, their daily lives, and their problems. The day of an inactive, passive, and purely patrician art is rapidly coming to a close.